Laurent Cantet’s new film, Time Out
, is the flip side of the same (corrupt capitalist) coin as the Dardenne brother’s 1999 film Rosetta
, instead of a lower-class character lying, cheating, and stealing to get a job, a bourgeois character lies, cheats, and steals to get out of his job. Eventually, both characters, are almost driven to despair and near suicide by the alienating effects of the late capitalist system.
Aurelien Recoing plays the film’s main character, Vincent, an almost middle-aged man with a wife, Muriel, and three kids; balding, and becoming thicker around the middle, Vincent is an amiable fellow, slightly introverted, at times seemingly lost in his own thoughts, with a rather shuffling, meek demeanor (for most of the film, there is a slight, yet constant, tinge of unhappiness or discontent, right below the genial surface). If the film did not introduce Vincent they way it does, in a lengthy shot of Vincent, stirring from his sleep in the front seat of his mini-van, as the fog around him recedes, revealing him to be parked in a wayside, followed by a few scenes of Vincent driving around or wandering through anonymous convenience stores and roadside parks while recounting the events of a fictional day at the office to his wife, over the cell phone, one would think that Vincent had the ideal life of the white-collar, management class. However, soon it becomes clear, Vincent was fired by his former employers, and has yet to tell his wife, children, family, and friends. Soon, Vincent’s lies blossom into an entirely “new” prestigious, career with the UN in Switzerland, supposedly helping the economic development of African countries. During the week, Vincent travels from his home near Lyon, to Geneva and Grenoble, where, instead of looking for a new job, Vincent wanders around almost aimlessly, eventually hatching a scheme to con people, first his father (a wealthy businessman), gaining 200,000 francs for a nonexistent apartment in Geneva, then other acquaintances, former friends from school, conning them into an investment scheme. Initially, nobody questions Vincent; not only does Vincent believe his own lies (to what degree, I am uncertain, when his father questions the worth of his job at Christmas, Vincent reacts indignantly and angrily, defending the worth of his “career”), but he is the kind of person, being banal, mundane, who you could never believe would (or could) pull off this scheme (the smuggler, Jean-Michel sees right through Vincent’s con).
Why does Vincent keep up his subterfuge? Clearly, Vincent does not want to disappoint either his wife or his children (plus, there is the material, respectable upper-class lifestyle that has to be maintained), nor does he want to disappoint the ever looming presence of his father (we are introduced to his father early in the film; he wordlessly enters Vincent’s house and walks into his darkened bedroom to awaken him). But the way his lies develop is interesting; his self-invention includes an extremely prestigious international posting, which helps the less fortunate people of Africa. Clearly, Vincent is trying to impress both his father and his family, which is another reason that Vincent takes umbrage to his father’s somewhat dismissive attitude towards his job. Eventually, Vincent trades on his new position, and invents a slightly more trangressive side to his personality, creating a con within a con, as he gets his friends to give him money for a shady investment scheme, when in reality, Vincent uses the money to support himself and his family. (Economic motivation is paramount, a failure to provide, would begin to question Vincent’s already shaky masculinity).
Of course, during this time, Vincent never really attempts to look for a job; in the beginning of the film, he pages through some newspaper classified ads, but that is pretty much the extent of his job search, his made up job is enough for him (and is probably the cause of enough stress). Vincent is profoundly alienated, he works jobs that he hates because of his family, and while he loves his wife and children, is alienated from them by their implicit insistence on his work. Vincent later explains to Jean-Michel that his only joy at his former job was driving to and from appointments. Vincent desires freedom, and escape from his mundane job and life, a freedom represented by his driving. Early on in the film, Vincent races a commuter train like a teenager, another time he is singing along to a French pop song; Vincent always seems most in control and comfortable when he is driving, and he spends much of the film in his car, alone. Eventually, when his schemes begin to pay off, Vincent trades in his sign of domesticity, the mini-van, for an almost new Range Rover, and then proceeds to take it off-roading. On the road, Vincent is free to do anything he wants, and what he wants is really to do nothing. Another sign of his alienation, is the film’s usage of glass partitions, Vincent is often on the outside looking in, and when it comes to work or to his family, he often has a smile upon his face, he enjoys being on the outside looking in, because, deep down, he really doesn’t want to be on the inside.
However, Vincent’s resolve begins to falter when a friend of his, named Nono, wants in on his investment scheme. Nono is no longer a businessman like the other acquaintances who are part of the scheme; instead, Nono left the business world to become a stay-at-home dad and to work on his passion, his music. Consequentially, Nono and his family are not rich, their are probably the least affluent characters in the film, but also probably the most happy. Nono has what Vincent wants, freedom, and when they want to give him their small life savings to invest, Vincent begins to feel the real pangs of guilt. This leads to one of the most interesting sequences of the film: Vincent climbs a hillside to look into Nono’s apartment through the window, it is a series of shot/reverse shots of Vincent, cloaked in the cold, winter darkness, gazing admiringly on the warm, domestic bliss of Nono and his family. Soon afterwards, Vincent is approached by Jean-Michel, a smuggler who wants Vincent to work for him (he is played by Serge Livrozet, a former criminal turned intellectual, and associate of the philosopher Michel Foucault). In one of the best performances of the film, Livrozet plays Jean-Michel as a charismatic rake, he is a surrogate father to Vincent, who offers Vincent a job outside the system, essentially doing what he wants to do. driving (and perhaps a little more, I detected a homoerotic undercurrent in their relationship, and so did some other critics, but Cantent, in an interview in S&S denies this was his intent). Even when Vincent leaves, without a word, Jean-Michel lets him go, without comment, though a little sadder.
By the time, Muriel has become suspicious and learns of Vincent’s lies. The ending is rather bleak, Vincent is at the end of his rope, on the verge of a complete nervous collapse. The strain of his lies and schemes have taken their psychic toll. His family fears him, Muriel restrains the children from their father, and attempts to stall until Vincent’s father arrives (the family patriarch will restore things to normalcy). When he does, Vincent, panic stricken, jumps from the window and drives off into the night, and just keeps driving. Along the way, his cellphone rings. Vincent answers it, but does not talk, allowing first his father and then Muriel to speak to him, plead with him to return, how they can make it better, how much they love him. Vincent pulls off to the side of the road, and leaves his Range Rover, walking into the darkness Muriel telling him that she loves him, though he can’t hear it. What happens beyond the glare of the headlights is a mystery.
Then their is a cut to a bright, sterile, modern office (like every other office building in the film, modern, glass-encased, neutral colors, sickly, fluorescent lighting); Vincent is in the inside of the glass partition this time, being interviewed for a management position, most likely arranged by his father (some critics have said that this ostensibly happy ending is the dreams of a dying man, that Vincent committed suicide in the darkness; I thought of it more as a nightmare, Vincent entrapped yet again in the oppressive and alienating system). As the interviewer drones on about the position, their is a close-up reaction shot of Vincent. His terse responses to the interviewer are themselves lies, and for a moment, a look of fear crosses Vincent’s face. His last lines of dialogue are “But I am not afraid...” More lies. Cut to black, as the credits begin to roll, the interviewer continues to drone on and on about the job over the credits, while the forlorn strings of the score begin to swell.